Edmond Simeoni and the wishes of Corsica

Edmond Simeoni, 82, one of the founders of the Corsican nationalist movement, told Connexion the elections in December 2015 were a real shot in the arm for their dreams of autonomy.

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A long-time supporter of autonomy, rather than full independence, he agrees it is now time for a referendum to be held. He has been campaigning since the 1960s.

He said: “It’s been 55 years of hard struggle, especially as we’ve often been seen as terrorists, whereas our demands have been made legally and constitutionally. It went so far that from 1977 to 1989 with the arrival of Mitterrand in power, we were subjected to more than 65 attacks by the French police and the state was totally indifferent.

“Objectively it must have been aware of the problem, but I think they were pleased about the difficulties we were going through.”

He said the years of struggle led to three different special statuses for Corsica and now a fourth is being prepared. “Why have they not worked? Because the state, which is a centralist nation-state, internationalist on the world stage and in earlier times imperialist, does not want to admit that within France there are different cultures, different languages, other than the strictly French one.

“It’s very hostile to real decentralisation. If you look at Europe there are around 96 autonomous areas and 300 million people who live in a regionalised, federalised system politically, including the UK with devolution for Scotland.

“So though we’ve had new statuses every decade, they have been feeble and insufficient ones, partly because they were not accompanied by efforts to reduce clientelism, clanism. Instead of preventing this from prospering, the state supported it.

“After these long years of struggles – legal ones on our part, illegal, armed ones by the FLNC for independence – after arrests, around 200 deaths, after more than 10,000 attacks by the clandestine groups, the state has still never understood that Corsica is not metropolitan France.

“The victory that we have now had is the result of the accumulation of patient work over decades, which has included mobilising the Corsican diaspora worldwide and going to Europe over abuses by the French police.

“A political victory is always preceded by an ideological victory, and for four or five years all our main themes: the Corsican people, the Corsican nation – which does not necessitate setting up a state – and the will to build a common future, blingualism, revision of the French constitution, a statute of autonomy, have become commonplace ideas in Corsica and various political parties now have policies on this that are essentially the same as ours.

“I believe 75% of Corsicans want a radical change to the constitution now.”

Dr Simeoni said if the nationalist group only won a relative majority of 35% at the second election round, this was directly due to the fact that other main party groups, on the left and centre, had taken on board some of their ideas. And they are not opposed to that, he said, because it is best for change to come through a consensus.

Asked about the relationship between the autonomists and independentists, he said the clandestine independentist movement, notably in its armed militant form FNLC, had been an “inevitable reaction” to “oppression” and the failure of the state to have dialogue. “It used violence, essentially to get itself heard; even if there have since been legal faces of it such as Corsica Libera [party of now Assembly President Jean-Guy Talamoni].”

Over recent years there have been efforts between the various factions to come closer, he said, with one key point being the renunciation by FLNC last year.

He estimated that the nationalists in the assembly are now about 70% autonomists, having merged their list with the nationalists, who are the other 30%. However in the next few years Corsica will not be calling for full independence, he said.

“We’re not going to be sending two groups to Paris, one asking for independence and one for autonomy.” This showed how far the independentists had come from the days of violent protest, he added.

Dr Simeoni said that ‘nationalist’ in their sense simply means they are patriots, attached to the identity of the Corsican people, but they are not ‘nationalist’ in the ‘authoritarian’ sense.

“We believe in values of solidarity and fraternity, whatever someone’s colour or religion might be,” he said.

Incidents of racial tension in the capital Ajaccio over the Christmas break [youths assaulted police and firefighters, which was then followed by reprisals such as a Muslim prayer room being vandalised], were not typical of Corsica, which was on the whole a good model of integration of immigrants. He said this was due to the welcoming character of the Corsicans and the strong local identity, which newcomers join in with.

In fact Dr Simeoni said an influx of North Africans in the last century benefited Corsica because in 1950 it was underpopulated, poor and underdeveloped – “France had abandoned it and siphoned off its working population, armed forces, civil servants, professionals, for the mainland or the colonies.”

Following the Algerian war, the population grew by about a third due to immigrants, he said, and there were few racist incidents because they found work and integrated. More recently he said there had been some escalations of tension linked to fears of extremism and migration, but no more than in other parts of France.

Dr Simeoni said the demands of the nationalists will need constitutional change – and most of the Corsican assembly councillors are now in favour of this. They include matters like: Corsican being an official language alongside French; the ability to control taxation, and enshrining a status that gives real executive and – in certain defined areas – legislative power (eg. not over truly national or European matters like defence or currency).

“If the status of Corsica is in the constitution, it won’t be a half-baked status anymore – we want the specificity of the Corsican people to be recognised,” Dr Simeoni said. The election victory now gives this a new impetus. “We’re asking Mr Valls and Mr Hollande to draw the lessons from it and get under way a process of dialogue on a new basis, around a table like civilised people; and we think that this time we will succeed.”

He said the Corsican nationalists have built links over the years with regionalists from other parts of Europe, including forming the European Free Alliance in 1981 [a grouping which is influential in the European Parliament] which includes the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru as well as, for example, Basques, Occitans, Alsatians, Bretons, Catalans and Savoyards. “We’re in solidarity with Scotland and Catalonia, who are on the right side of history. We’ve a lot in common, though our situations aren’t quite the same. Scotland has already had devolution and has advanced much more than us.”

Dr Simeoni said Corsica has the talent and resources to make a success of full independence – which would mean doing without central government grants – and he does not rule it out one day if opinion moves in that direction.

Already thanks to the election win, many projects which had been struggling are off the back burner, he said. How ever he thinks there is no point talking of it now because even autonomy would be a “real revolution”.

He said: “The proof is we’ve fought for 50 years without obtaining it. Because the state doesn’t want to hear the words autonomy or independence mentioned. I believe that even the status of autonomy means that a referendum should be held. That way we can be clear that it’s what the Corsicans want and there’s nothing underhand.”

The Corsicans will do everything to avoid this process turning towards militancy rather than negotiation, he said. “However if tomorrow the survival of the Corsican people is refused by the powers that be against the wishes of the Corsicans, we will defend our interests – without violence – by calling on international solidarity.”